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Spotlight Report

  Scot Lehigh  

Regaining the trust


NEVER TRUST those who look through the hole of a hood, the French scholar and wit Rabelais, once a Franciscan novice, is said to have warned.

But for Sean Patrick O'Malley, the religious hood may just encourage trust, for the Franciscan habit he wears is the very emblem of humility.

Boston's new archbishop will need that humility in full measure if he is to win the confidence of a flock and a community traumatized by the long nightmare of the church's sexual abuse scandal.

On that score, Wednesday's installation was heartening. The folksy manner and the self-effacing humor O'Malley displayed proved a refreshing tonic after the magisterial mien of Cardinal Bernard Law.

In his homily, O'Malley met the issue of sexual abuse head on, offering a moving apology to the many victims of the predator priests the archdiocese had failed to defrock, thanking those victims for coming forward, and promising to make the protection of children a top priority. Meanwhile, his call for alienated Catholics to return to the fold seemed an invitation to reconciliation both honest and heartfelt.

It would have been instructive, certainly, to hear more about the role he envisions for the laity. Still, Wednesday offered reason to hope that the new archbishop understands at the beginning of his tenure what Law seemed to grasp only at the disastrous end of his own: That to succeed as a religious leader in Boston in these troubled times, the trust of one's faithful is as essential as the authority of the Vatican. Within that notion there lurks the quiet reality of a changing balance of power in the Catholic Church.

If, as author and theologian Hans Kung has written, the history of the church has been a struggle between the authoritative instinct of the Vatican and the democratizing impulse of religious reformers, power in Boston has clearly flowed from the prelates and toward the people.

Even at the height of his prestige, back before the devastating scandal leached away the last remnants of his moral authority, Law was more respected than revered. A rigid, regal, reserved figure cloaked in a self-importance so insistent it bordered on pomposity, the cardinal could nevertheless wield his power confident that the deference accorded his office was enough to compensate for the lack of a strong bond with the city he served.

Indeed, it wasn't so long ago that the mere word that the cardinal was visiting the State House would send a frisson of attentive interest through the ranks of Catholic lawmakers. Or that a letter from the archdiocese on a public policy matter could have a real effect on its disposition.

Of course, time has long been eroding the notion of automatic obedience to the church. That's been apparent for several decades in public opinion surveys documenting the emergence of cafeteria Catholics, parishioners who honor the elements of the church's teaching that make sense to them but feel free to ignore those that do not. Still, that reality, if understood, also tended to be understated - a private theology, not a public rebellion.

But when Law's reign collapsed under the weight of his own imperious mismanagement, what was also crushed in the rubble was the idea that any archbishop could succeed either as an influential community leader or a persuasive spiritual shepherd without the affection and confidence of the congregants.

Put another way, the era of blind faith, long on the wane, came to a crashing end.

This city, this state, this country now see an engaged, energetic laity. The Voice of the Faithful, its organized expression, commands the allegiance of thousands of Catholics and the attention of thousands more, making it a force to be reckoned with. Catholic universities, once quietly compliant, are now critiquing important elements of the faith. And Boston is the center of it all.

Certainly no other archbishop has faced a similar situation upon his installation.

Law, who valued the power of his post more than the affection of his parishioners, could have the former without earning the latter.

But as he begins the job of trying to heal an archdiocese roiled by an appalling scandal, O'Malley will not have the luxury of being unloved. Whether he succeeds or fails depends less on the authority Rome imparts than the trust Boston gives.

That's a truth Archbishop Sean should keep as close about him as his Franciscan habit of humility.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2003.
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